Projecting the Pittsburgh Pirates‘ depth chart at second base isn’t too much of a challenge for the 2014 season. Why, you ask? Well, there’s been no appreciable change from the 2013 season. You have the familiar names of Neil Walker, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison who cumulatively started 152 games for the Pirates in 2012 (125, 20, and seven, respectively). Brandon Inge and John McDonald scattered starts in that mix as well but aren’t notable enough to discuss because they are gone — Inge to free agency and McDonald to the Los Angeles Angels via the Cleveland Indians.
At any rate, here is how the 2014 Pirates will look defensively:
Starter – Neil Walker
After attending high school just outside of Pittsburgh, Walker was signed by the Pirates in the 2004 amateur draft. That signing is paying dividends now as Walker has solidified his starting spot following the departure of Freddie Sanchez after the 2009 season.
Offensively, he’s better than the average National League second baseman with a career triple slash of .273/.339/.423 (compared to the league .255/.321/.399). He will hit 10+ home runs each year, and he’s going to strike out less than the league’s average second baseman.
After being criticized for his defensive abilities by the Pittsburgh faithful a year prior, Walker upped his game in 2013, making several stellar highlight-reel plays while boasting a .989 fielding percentage. The funny part about the criticism is that it’s misplaced. Walker has a career fielding percentage well above the league average. One hypothesis is that he’s forced into a comparison to Bill Mazeroski, who played in the 1960s for the Pirates and is most remembered for his home run to end the 1960 World Series.
Walker is tapped to be the Pirates starting second baseman to the 2017 season after which time — barring an extension prior to — he will be eligible for free agency.
Backup – Jordy Mercer
Not really a backup in the traditional “full-time reserve” sense, Jordy Mercer will see everyday playing time as the Buccos’ starting shortstop only ever moving over to second base due to an injury to Walker or to give him the rare night off. Mercer saw action in 20 games at second base in 2013 after Walker found his way to the disabled list with soreness in his right side.
Mercer is a below average defensive player, but the Pirates will look to him to make up for that with the bat. In 333 at-bats in 2013, Mercer posted a triple slash of .285/.336/.425 with eight home runs, an obvious improvement to the Clint Barmes‘ era Pirates.
Utility Backup – Josh Harrison
This is the 2014 version of current Pirates broadcaster John Wehner who became famous with the Pirates playing every position but pitcher in a Pirates uniform. Harrison, by comparison, saw action at second base, shortstop, third base, left field, right field and pitcher in 2013 which is still an impressive accomplishment.
Harrison’s versatility is what makes him a key part of this Pirates’ team in 2014. He will be listed on the overall depth chart at the aforementioned positions (except pitcher) for 2014 and is only one injury away from seeing substantial playing time at any of these positions — except outfield perhaps.
Offensively, he can carry the torch for the starters over the short term, but the Pirates won’t want him to see extensive at-bats in 2014. His numbers are a touch below the league average, but that’s to be expected of a utility player or he wouldn’t be a utility player — he’d be a starter.
There are a couple of key positions where the Pirates are counting on his staying healthy and this is one of them. With no devoted full-time backup, an injury to Walker will cause another position (notably third base and shortstop) to become understaffed as Harrison is also listed as the third base backup. Mercer would need to shift to second base full time, and Clint Barmes would assume the shortstop role. Of course, Walker would go on the DL and Robert Adino would be called up from AAA Indianapolis. That’s a lot of movement losing one guy would cause, and unfortunately, the same thing can happen at third base and shortstop.